Confuse the Powers That Be!

A troupe of Minneapolis agit-prop artists go to Giuliani's Gotham and face their toughest adversary yet--indifference

Troyer and the 20 to 25 Twin Cities-based Praxis members--generally twentysomethings with academic and/or performance backgrounds--coordinated the events in Manhattan and Minneapolis. The Minneapolis event is one of the first to be coordinated without much direct steering by Troyer himself; in the past, Troyer has assumed most of the conceptual and organizational responsibilities of the group. Pairs of Praxis members will be traveling to five different McDonald's locations around the Twin Cities, approaching the individual counters, and simultaneously making the same incongruous request, such as "Can I get pancakes in a hash-brown container?" or "Can I get hash-browns in a pancake container?" Whatever packaging they ultimately receive will be collected at a spot outside the Uptown McDonald's, where it will be added to a sidewalk shrine to Ronald over the course of the afternoon.

This event is actually officially sanctioned, though not exactly expected: Praxis has signed up for a public art event sponsored by the Uptown Business Association and steered by Minneapolis artist Rob Blackson, though the Association was more likely expecting chalk drawings or something similarly traditional. (The next day, however, preliminary reports from Minneapolis indicate that the Association liked it so much that it invited Praxis to come to the Uptown Art Fair--an invitation Troyer tells me they'll most likely decline.)

Even though Troyer isn't ruling out the value of getting arrested, so far the group has focused on acting out the unexpected, not the illicit. At the group's first performance in the Mall of America, pairs of performers walked through the halls, one holding up a sign with a quote from the Mall's promotional literature--such as "The 78-acre complex attracts fashion-conscious power shoppers"--while the other took notes. At the Crystal Court, they stood in a line on the skyway-level balcony, looking down to the ground floor with binoculars.

Praxis acts of kind randomness and beautiful senselessness: The lab-coat mafia in a Minneapolis action
Praxis acts of kind randomness and beautiful senselessness: The lab-coat mafia in a Minneapolis action

"To break the law is really simple," says Troyer. "Existing in that line between illegal and different, that can be really tricky. Because if you're not doing anything necessarily wrong, but you're doing something different, you're on that boundary where the person who's in charge of wherever you're at has to determine if what you're doing is illegal." It's an especially Minnesotan concern, considering our propensity to have our public spaces handed over to private concerns--witness our dubious record in having created the country's first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and its largest (just guess). And leave it to our state to serve as home to what may be the least confrontational agit-prop troupe in the free world.

The choice of costume, which Troyer first used two years ago when he wrote a play produced at the University of Minnesota, helps push the boundary between innocuous and disconcerting. "There's something about that damn white lab coat that really creeps people out," he says. The lab coats can make the observational nature of a Praxis performance unnervingly apparent, coercing other people into the role of subject. However, the coats also serve as an apt reminder that Praxis is as much an organ of research into public psychology as it is a quiet agitator. Many of the notes that the group takes are later passed around and read.

In the same spirit of discovery, Troyer will often laugh boisterously when he explains how some public interaction played out unexpectedly. Although Troyer, who received a bachelor's degree from the U of M in theater and political science, displays a mild disdain for capitalism in its more noxious incarnations, when he speaks about Praxis, he seems much more interested in ideas than in conveying a sense of outrage. In some sense, he's a big kid in an ideological sandbox, playing with postmodern theory instead of a Tonka truck, and assembling an elite squad of lit-crit smartasses to move the sand around from pile to pile.

On Saturday, the first International Acts of Difference Day, the Praxis Manhattan contingent is ready to move again. Starting from the edge of Central Park across the street from the Guggenheim museum, seven Praxis members (all of whom either flew out from Minneapolis or recently moved to New York) walk into the museum one by one, holding their lab coats folded and tucked under their arms.

At noon, Troyer puts on his lab coat and makes his entrance. Starting from the fourth floor--the first three floors are closed for installation--Troyer makes his way up the Guggenheim's broad spiral pathway, posture erect, face expressionless. He attracts only a few glimpses and double takes. When he reaches the top, two other Praxis agents join him, slipping on their coats and descending with him. Others join them on the way down, and they walk slowly, deliberately, rarely exchanging conversation or even glances. They openly observe the art and the patrons, scribbling down notes and gazing through binoculars at the ground-floor mezzanine, at the art, or at each other from two feet away.

But again, there's no confrontation: The guards range from curious to amused. One guard laughs, and mouths, "I have no idea" to a guard on a level below him: He eventually approaches the group and says, "This is performance art, right?" And although this gives rise to a delicious mess of intertwined gazes--guards and patrons watching Praxis members, who reflect that gaze back through their binoculars--it also leaves the group, again, with the curious problem of being forced to choose the ending to its performance.

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